So it felt like it was just yesterday when I was eating burritos and drinking horchata at the Cesar Chavez Student Center, just like yesterday when I was stuck on Muni on the M line, running late for my Black literature class. And it seems like it was just yesterday when I read this guy, this writer named James Baldwin who hit me like a ton of bricks. He said in one of his poems, “Our history is each other. That is our only guide.” And I’m proud to be a part of this school’s history.
You know, eight years ago I was amongst you sitting there wondering about my future. What choices will I make? What kind of professional career will I have? How do I define success? You know, it’s hard for all of us, given this economy and given the age of disruption — and this is the age of disruption that we’re living in — but it was particularly hard for me and millions others like me because I’m an undocumented immigrant. What some people call “an illegal.” You know there are at least 300 to maybe even 600 undocumented students right here at San Francisco State today.
I wasn’t privileged enough to be born in this country and be considered American. I don’t have the right papers to prove that I’m American. So I have to believe in my heart that I am American. And I thank my teachers, my fellow students and friends, I thank the kind and generous people here at San Francisco State for welcoming and embracing me as an American. You embraced me then, and you embrace me now.
I got more than an education in this school. This institution allowed me to be my own institution. And if I can impart anything to graduates, to all of you, 7,900 graduates today, it’s just that. You must be your own institution. Success is not simply defined by the degrees you earn, the cars and houses you buy, and the money you have. Success is also defined by standing up for other people, even when it’s inconvenient. Success is also defined by the relationships you keep and the people you treasure. And when you honor me you really honor my two families. You honor my Filipino family, my lola, and my uncle, and my aunt, and my (inaudible) sitting over there, their love is as deep and as wide as the ocean they crossed to get to America.
You also honor the family of friends and mentors I was blessed to have. That’s my high school principal and my high school superintendent, Pat Highland and Rich Fisher. My lifelong mentors, Mary Moore and Jim Strand. You know, when I graduated from high school in 2000 people like me couldn’t apply for financial aid to go to school and it was because of this guy named Jim Strand who set up a scholarship fund that I was even able to be here amongst you.
All of them believed in me long before I believed in myself. And I dedicate this honor, this amazing honor, to the estimated two million undocumented students enrolled in schools all around America.
There is more to us, to each of us, than pieces of paper. I am proud, I am as proud today as I was eight years ago to say I am a graduate of San Francisco State University. Thank you very, very much.
-Jose Antonio Vargas, San Francisco State University 2012 Alumnus of the Year